Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, we must start a conversation about what it means to safely open up our society.
Because there is a point where a state of lockdown, without effective protection measures, is more dangerous than an open society with such measures.
Over the past couple of weeks we have seen government make significant concessions to the taxi industry, informal traders and others, to begin normalising their mobility. This was done, understandably, due to the pressure that a lockdown has placed on the livelihoods of our most vulnerable communities.
But it places those same communities at risk.
What we need is to think now about what a safe reversal of the lockdown might mean. The reality is that in the absence of a medical breakthrough, such as a cure or therapy which mitigates the risks of Covid-19, the reality of opening up our society in spite of the virus will become inevitable.
The question then, is how can we do so safely?
Detection, transmission and breaking the chain
The virus moves through the air around the ill, and over surfaces that we touch. This means that a person moving through a public facility such as the taxi rank, or touching the balustrade at a train station, will put themselves and others at risk.
It means that a city dweller who travels across town to visit a friend or loved one will endanger his entire community and vice versa.
At the moment, we mitigate these risks through social distancing at a personal level and the lockdown at the societal level. We further combat the spread by testing, tracking and tracing existing and potential infected persons.
This is how we “lower the curve”, so to speak.
While these measures are good, and South Africa has been proactive in mobilising an enormous effort, they are blunt instruments with unintended consequences.
Counting the cost
We knew it would be inevitable, but the lockdown smashes our economic activity and infects large portions of our society with worsening socio-economic conditions. This is not avoidable, but certainly undesirable.
Is there an alternative?
South Korea, data and discipline
Countries such as South Korea, that have effectively reduced their rate of new infections, have done so through a combination of data and discipline. They have created systems that give the citizen, on a case-by-case basis, permission to move around in public space.
- Have you been in contact with a positive carrier? Then you are a public risk, and may not travel for a period.
- Do you have proximity to currently suspected cases? Then your travel is limited to an area.
- Do you move between high-risk areas and low-risk areas? The implication being that you are a potential distributor of the infection should you become a carrier, then your movements are curtailed.
They enforce these rules and barriers through the use of smartphones, algorithms, web-based platforms and state surveillance.
We in South Africa neither have the resources nor the inclination to allow the state to intrude on our privacy and curtail our freedoms to such a degree.
However, there is another measure they use with great effect. Public hygiene.
As many as 88% of citizens wear masks. Many wear gloves. Public transport entry points are dotted with sanitiser distribution points.
You move through a full body sanitation spray as you enter some train stations.
By ramping up hygiene, they lower the probability of the virus surviving in public space, either in the air or on surfaces.
A new normal
China, in a similar way, has been able to “normalise” society in some parts through these kinds of measures.
However, it is a new normal where people’s faces are covered, they avoid touching one another, and go about their business as siloed individuals rather than groups or crowds.
Essentially, the risk of infection is attacked through a combination of individual discipline at the behavioural level and societal protocols at the collective level.
Can SA innovate, or must we sit it out?
I am convinced that the lockdown is good, has been effective, and was an outstanding moment of leadership that has protected our country.
But, I am equally convinced that in the absence of a surprise cure, we will soon have to come to terms with the alternative.
We have to answer the question: what does a safe factory or mine look like in the presence of Covid-19? How would public transport function, if we had to live with a virus for another three years?
We have to answer these questions, and others, because our economy and our vulnerable society simply cannot bear the burden of lingering in inaction, of failing to develop an alternative response.
We cannot copy South Korea’s approach, nor can we fail to take appropriate action and follow the painful path that Italy, Spain and the US have followed.
Instead, we have to innovate and create safe passage, somehow. We must innovate to create safe homes, safe suburbs, safe streets and trains and safe places of work.
It may require a military-style intervention and intrusion into our ways of life.
It may require the abandonment of longstanding social and cultural practices that have marked our ways of working, our lifestyles and our ways of being in community.
But we cannot hide behind our doors and remain connected via internet-based meeting rooms forever. At some point, we have to calculate the risks and mitigate them as best we can.
The purpose then of this challenge, is not to bemoan our conundrum, but to provoke our collective ingenuity for an alternative response. DM